Issue 69 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1995 Copyright © International Socialism
The Spanish Civil War is generally accepted to be one of the turning points of 20th century history; the dress rehearsal for the Second World War or the 'last crusade'. More importantly, it also witnessed the end of the revolutionary cycle which began in 1917. Such has been the interest in this conflict that it has generated a massive amount of literature--some 16,000 titles connected to the Civil War have been published to date in the form of general histories, memoirs and specialist monographs, among which Anglo-American writers have been particularly prominent.1 Interpretations of the war's significance and its outcome have divided historians and former participants alike over the last 56 years.
Prelude to revolution
The attempt to establish a stable bourgeois democracy in one of the poorest countries in Europe at a time of worldwide economic crisis was always unlikely to succeed. Squeezed between a particularly vicious ruling class and an increasingly radicalised workers' movement, Spain's would-be liberal reformers managed to satisfy no one. The Second Republic (1931 to 1936) was faced with massive strike waves, armed workers' insurrections and counter-revolutionary plots--by 1936, if not before, most of the ruling class were convinced that only a fascist style military takeover could put an end to working class militancy and protect their privileges.
Literature in English on the pre-war years is nowhere near as extensive as on the Civil War itself, although most of the general histories of the Civil War also contain accounts of the pre-war years. Raymond Carr's comprehensive Spain 1808-19752 is the standard text on modern Spanish history. The most accessible account of the origins of the war remains The Spanish Labyrinth, by the English writer Gerald Brenan, first published in 1943.3 Brenan lived in Andalusia from the 1920s onwards, and his unconventional account of the origins of the war is well worth reading, despite certain inaccuracies in historical detail. Brenan saw very clearly the centrality of the agrarian question to the conflict. Attempts, albeit very limited, to undermine the power of the landed oligarchy in southern Spain by the Republican government had met with the stiffest resistance by the land owners.4 The 2 million landless farm labourers of Andalusia and Estremadura, in turn, provided one of the main bulwarks of revolutionary working class politics during these years. It was no coincidence that the occupation of these areas by Franco's armies was accompanied by ferocious repression. Anarchism had deep roots among these landworkers, as it did in Barcelona, and Brenan's explanation as to why this was the case is of particular interest.
The most substantial work published to date on the Second Republic is by the best known and most prolific of present day British specialists in modern Spanish history, Paul Preston. His The Coming of the Spanish Civil War5 centres on the struggle between the two main political formations during the Republic, the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the reactionary Catholic CEDA and reflects the author's sympathies for the moderate Socialist leader Prieto and the left Republican Azaña. Like all of Preston's work, it is a very readable and thoroughly researched account. Also worth consulting are two recent collections of essays, Revolution and War in Spain 1931-1939, edited by Preston, and Spain in Conflict, 1931-1939, edited by Martin Blinkhorn.6 Another rewarding read is the third volume of the memoirs of Socialist Party member Arturo Barea, The Forging of a Rebel, The Clash, which is a vivid depiction of the political atmosphere in Spain before and during the war.7
The Civil War
There are many general histories of the war ranging from the excellent to the downright awful. What are widely considered to be the three classic histories published in English on the question are those by Hugh Thomas, Gabriel Jackson and Raymond Carr.8 Thomas's The Spanish Civil War is long and informative. It was the first comprehensive and documented study of the war but gives too much credit at times to dubious Francoist sources in an attempt to be 'objective' (Thomas would later be adviser to Margaret Thatcher). The main rival to Thomas has been Jackson's The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, written from a liberal pro-Republican standpoint. Carr, the doyen of experts on modern Spain, in his The Civil War in Spain, has written a more compact and analytical account which emphasises the failure of the liberal reformers to break the hold of the ruling classes. Along the lines of these standard histories are the briefer and more recent works by Paul Preston and by George Esenwein and Adrian Shubert, The Spanish Civil War 1936-39 and Spain at War: The Spanish Civil War in Context 1931-1939.9 Preston's well illustrated book is generally sympathetic to the Popular Front and is suitable for anyone looking for a good and concise introduction to the history of the Civil War.
For a Marxist analysis of the Civil War, we must turn to Pierre Broué and Emile Témime, The Revolution and Civil War in Spain, which is still the best overall account of the war and revolution in the opinion of this reviewer.10 This book, tragically out of print in English for over 20 years, is divided into two sections: the first by Broué dealing with the revolution and political divisions in the Republican zone and the second by Témime, about the military struggle, the international dimension and events in the Francoist zone. Alongside this latter work must be placed Ronald Fraser's excellent Blood of Spain.11 Fraser has woven together the results of over 300 interviews with participants in the war to form what is not only a brilliant and vivid description of events but also a clear defence of the view that only a revolutionary war could have defeated fascism.
As a result of the military uprising against the Republic, the workers and farm labourers took over large parts of the country. The Republican government was helpless and power lay in the hands of thousands of committees and the workers' militias. Initially this revolution was practically written out of accounts of the war (Hugh Thomas hardly mentioned it in the first edition of his book). In the late 1960s and 1970s, partly as a result of the work of historians such as Pierre Broué and Burnett Bolloten and more significantly as a result of the rise of interest in revolutionary politics, the importance of the revolution began to be recognised again. Various Trotskyist and anarchist accounts of events were republished in this period. The 1980s, with the crisis of the left internationally, saw the emergence of a school of history, however, that tries to play down the importance of the revolution, even challenge its very existence, and to blame revolutionary 'excesses' for the Republic's defeat. This is the case in Spain itself, where the collapse of the far left has been particularly noticeable. Socialists undoubtedly have an important role to play in rediscovering the revolution and explaining its relevance to today's struggles. Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom could not have been more timely.
The best accounts of the revolution are to be found in Broué and Témime and in Fraser; added to these must be Felix Morrow's Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain.12 Morrow, a member of the American SWP in the 1930s, wrote his account on the basis of reports he received from Trotskyists in Spain and the analysis he provides is strictly within the orthodox Trotskyist analysis of the time. It is useful to read alongside Trotsky's own writings on the subject.13 Trotsky himself wrote consistently on Spain between 1930 and 1931 but would only return to do so again after reaching Mexico in early 1937. Events elsewhere and his own precarious situation prevented him from following events closely in the intervening years which means his writings inevitably do not deal thoroughly with the whole period. Despite this they remain a great source of analysis and insight.
Trotsky was harsh in his treatment of the revolutionary socialist POUM on whom he ultimately placed the blame for the revolution's defeat.14 The only history of the POUM published in English to date is by former party member Victor Alba, Spanish Marxism versus Soviet Communism: A History of the POUM, which is rather uneven.15 George Orwell's classic Homage to Catalonia is essential reading for anyone wanting to get a general idea about the POUM's position and provides an eloquent defence of the revolution.16 A lesser known eyewitness account is that of the Australian Troskyist Mary Low and her partner, the Cuban Trotskyist Juan Brea, who worked with the POUM during the first months of the war.17 This contains some good descriptions of life in the rearguard and on the Aragon front but is rather undermined by their ill explained departure from Spain in early 1936. There is also a short biography of the POUM leader, Andres Nin, by the former head of the party's youth wing, Wilebaldo Solano.18 On the diminutive Spanish Trotskyist group, the Bolshevik Leninists, the best source of information is the collection of documents and articles published by the journal Revolutionary History, nearly all of which appear in English for the first time. They include several important accounts of events from a revolutionary point of view.19
The main revolutionary organisation in Spain was the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. The reasons for the success of anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism in Spain between 1870s and 1936 are debatable; in general, the distinct socio-economic structure of those areas where these movements were strongest, Andalusia and Catalonia, and the failure of the Communists to provide a mass alternative in the early 1920s explain why this was the case.21 There are a number of books published in English on the Spanish anarchists and their view of the war and revolution. Most of these have been written by anarchists or writers sympathetic to them. Representative of these is Murray Bookchin's The Spanish Anarchists, which is fairly romantic but worth a read.21 For an anarchist view of the revolution there is José Peirats' Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, a shortened version of the original Spanish work, which is the closest thing to an 'official' CNT version of events.22 The effect of defeat in both the revolution and the war was to split the CNT into various small mutually hostile factions. The more radical anarcho-syndicalists put the blame squarely on those who had advocated collaboration with the Popular Front government. A critical view from an anarchist point of view of the CNT's role in the revolution can be found in Vernon Richards' Lessons of the Spanish Revolution.23 Also of interest are the biography of the radical anarchist leader Buenaventura Durruti by one of his former comrades, Abel Paz, Durruti, The People Armed, and the collection of anarcho-syndicalist documents, Spain: Social Revolution--Counter Revolution.24
At the centre of the Spanish revolution was the collectivisation of industry and agriculture, in which the anarchists were particularly prominent. This vast experiment in social control went furthest in eastern Aragon, where there were some 300 agrarian collectives, and is vividly described in the eyewitness accounts by the French anarchist Gaston Leval in Collectives in the Spanish Revolution and by the German anarchist Agustín Souchy, With the Peasants of Aragon.25 Graham Kelsey provides a very detailed, thoroughly researched and sympathetic account of anarcho-syndicalism in Aragon, both before and during the Civil War, in Anarchosyndicalism, Libertarian Communism and the State: the CNT in Zaragosa and Aragon 1930-1938.26 As in 1917, working class revolution in Spain led to a transformation in the lives of women and the beginnings of a true liberation. The anarchist women's organisation Mujers Libres (Free Women) was at the centre of the struggle to defend and further this new found freedom. A study of their activities and ideas from a feminist point of view can be found in Martha A Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women.27 Another American feminist academic, Shirley Mangini, has written a more general account of women's lives and their struggles both before, during and after the Civil War, Memories of Resistance: Women's voices from the Spanish Civil War, which relies heavily on memoirs and oral testimonies.28
In smashing the Spanish revolution, the true nature of Stalinism would be fully experienced outside the USSR for the first time. Trotsky would conclude, in late 1937, that events in Spain had 'acted to fix definitively the counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism on the international arena'.29 A thorough and very detailed account of the Stalinists' role in the Civil War can be found in Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. Bolloten worked as a journalist in Spain between 1936 and 1938, and his experiences there led him to break with Stalinism and dedicate his life to writing the history of the political struggle in the Republican zone. The first version of his monumental study was published in 1961 as The Grand Camouflage. The third, expanded and definitive account came out 30 years later, just after his death.30 Bolloten has been accused by many of being a Cold War warrior and there have been a whole series of attacks on his work by leftish historians over the years. However, Bolloten cannot be simply dismissed as an anti-Communist. The sheer volume of information, not just on the Communists but also on the role of many leading social democrats and liberals who were more than willing partners in the counter-revolution, and especially on the revolution itself, makes this book essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the events in the Republican zone during the war.
In comparison with Bolloten's study, most other material published in English on Stalinism and the Spanish revolution is fairly weak.31 A couple of exceptions are E H Carr's The Comintern and the Spanish Civil War,32 which is of interest, despite being unfinished, and, in particular, the chapters relating to Spain in Fernando Claudin's The Communist Movement.33 Claudin was a leader of the Spanish Communist Party until his expulsion in 1964, and his demolition job on party policy during the war, along with his defence of a revolutionary strategy as the only alternative that could have won, is particularly convincing. Anyone wanting to read an unashamedly Stalinist version of events could turn to the curiously entitled, given the author's politics, Spain: The Unfinished Revolution by Arthur H Landis, a former member of the International Brigades, or the first volume of Spanish Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri's (La Pasionaria) autobiography, They Shall Not Pass.34
The Spanish Socialist Party's role in the Civil War was so inconsistent that it could be referred to in this or the previous section of this Bookwatch. The party's right and centre were active supporters of the counter-revolutionary line of the Communist Party until many of them realised, too late, that they too were being squeezed out of power. The Socialist left, despite all its revolutionary bluster, especially before the war, proved incapable of developing an independent line and most of its leading members ended up accepting the logic of Popular Front politics. The result of this political confusion was the eventual isolation of the leader of the Socialist left, the misnamed 'Spanish Lenin', Francisco Largo Caballero and the conversion of some of his most vociferous supporters into, at least, fellow travellers of the Communist Party. The only book that deals specifically with the fate of the Spanish Socialists during the Civil War is Helen Graham's solidly researched and informative Socialism and War: The Spanish Socialist Party in power and crisis, 1936-1939.35
Although usually referred to as simply 'fascists', the forces behind the military rebellion that would eventually convert Franco into the country's dictator were an amalgam of ruling class interests and reactionary groupings. Apart from an important section of the officer corps, his support also came from the church hierarchy, the landowners and industrialists, as well as sectors of the middle classes and the conservative peasantry of central and northern Spain. Politically he was backed by the remnants of the Catholic CEDA, the fascist Falange and the two competing monarchist groupings: the Alfonsists and Carlists. The one political party forcibly established by Franco during the first months of the war was an unholy alliance of these different factions and is usually known simply as the 'Falange' despite being the smaller of all the contending rightist groups prior to the war. Although the new party and much of the trappings of Franco's regime were modelled on the Italian fascist movement, this was, in effect, a deeply conservative Catholic counter-revolution and lacked the modernising and all embracing authoritarianism of classic fascism. This, of course, did not make it any better to live under for the regime's many victims.
There are two good standard academic works on the most radical sectors of the Spanish right at this time: Martin Blinkhorn's Carlism and Crisis in Spain 1931-1939 and Sheelagh Ellwood's Spanish Fascism in the Franco Era.36 There are a number of biographies of Franco published in English, all of which have been totally overshadowed by Paul Preston's lengthy and definitive study, Franco.37 Of particular interest is Preston's argument that Franco's notoriously conservative military strategy was due to a policy of deliberately prolonging the war in order to assure the total annihilation of his opponents, rather than just the result of military incompetence. Specifically on the army there is, also by Paul Preston, The Politics of Revenge: Fascism and the Military in 20th Century Spain.38 A comprehensive study of the role of the church is to be found in Frances Lannon, Privilege, Persecution and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975.39For those interested, there are also published in English various right wing, if not openly pro-Francoist, studies on the Spanish Civil War and about Franco himself.40 A brilliant exposé of Francoist historiography can be found in Herbert Southworth's Guernica! Guernica! A Study of Journalism, Diplomacy, Propaganda and History.41
An international war
The Spanish Civil War was above all an international war. The fascist powers used Spain as a testing ground for the latest military technology and strategy. The Western democracies adopted the hypocritical and shameful policy of 'nonintervention'. Stalin intervened to make sure that the Republic neither lost nor won, so that he could gain time to prepare for the inevitable clash with Hitler's Germany, while at the same time strangling the only hope of victory for the Spanish masses: a revolutionary war. Above all, for many left wingers throughout the world, it was a chance to take a stand against fascism, to avoid Spain following the path of Italy, Germany or Austria.
The international dimension of the Spanish war has also taken on a new relevance today with the spurious argument defended by much of the left that Bosnia is the new Spain. Most of the general histories of the Civil War cover the international angle, especially Hugh Thomas's. There are also a variety of studies which deal with foreign intervention (and non-intervention) in general and the role of each of the main powers in relation to the war in Spain.42
International working class solidarity was the Republic's one real ally. All over the world the workers' movement organised the sending of aid. The Aid Spain Movement in Britain was one such example--sending not just material support but also teams of doctors and nurses to the frontlines. The principal force behind this movement was the Communist Party and the broad spectrum of support the campaign received (Viscount Churchill, Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell, director of the London Zoo...) reflected the party's Popular Front politics. The Signal Was Spain by Jim Fyrth is a sympathetic record of the movement's activities; while Tom Bucanan's The Spanish Civil War and the British Labour Movement provides a more detailed account of the attitude adopted by British workers' organisations in relation to the war and on solidarity work in Wales there is Hywel Francis's Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War.43
The most dramatic form of solidarity was the volunteers who went to fight, at first in a fairly disorganised way and, after the autumn of 1936, in the Comintern organised International Brigades. Only the Communist movement at this time had the organisation and discipline to mount such an operation, which meant that the Brigades were subject, like Soviet aid itself, to the political dictates of the Soviet government. But this should not detract from the heroism and sacrifice of the 30,000, mostly working class, volunteers, Communist and non-communist alike, from over 50 countries who went to give their lives in the fight against fascism. Although only making up a small part of the Republic's armed forces, when used the Brigades were to play an important role as shock troops, especially around Madrid. Their casualty rate was extremely high. Unfortunately there is no really satisfactory book on the Brigades in English.44 Accounts by volunteers themselves are usually uncritical of Stalinism but are often an inspiring read--as is the case with the account by one of the leading figures in the British Brigade, Bill Alexander, in his British Volunteer for Liberty: Spain 1936-39.45 In a similar vein are Michael O'Riordan's Connolly Column on the Irish volunteers and Our Fight: Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Spain 1936-1939, edited by Alvah Bessie and Albert Prago, a collection of writings by fighters from the USA.46 One of the few critical assessments by a former International Brigade member is Crusade in Spain by Jason Gurney.47
Alongside the memoirs of Brigade members, there have also been published many other eyewitness accounts by foreign observers who were present in Spain, at the front or in the rearguard. Apart from Orwell, Brea and Low, one of the best is The Spanish Cockpit by the Austrian Franz Borkenau, who was in Spain during 1936 and 1937. Borkenau, himself a former Communist, describes the chaotic situation at the front at the beginning of the war, where he visited POUM (images of Land and Freedom immediately come to mind), anarchist and Stalinist militias, and his growing awareness of the counter-revolutionary role of the Communists.48 The veteran anarchist Emma Goldman also visited Spain at this time and her view of events can be found in Vision on Fire.49 Another testimony of interest is Dialogue with Death, a harrowing description of what it was like to be awaiting execution in one of Franco's jails by the Communist writer Arthur Koestler, which he wrote after he fell foul of the military while working as a reporter behind fascist lines.50
Finally, the struggle against fascism in Spain led to a wealth of literary writings and poetry, by foreigners and Spaniards alike (unfortunately much of it was sympathetic to the Stalinist version of events), ranging from the sentimental and romantic to the truly inspirational. As a useful introduction to these writings see the anthologies, The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse and Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War, both edited by Valentine Cunningham and The Spanish Civil War: A Cultural and Historical Reader edited by Alun Kenwood.51Of the many novels set during the Civil War, two of the best are André Malraux's Days of Hope and William Herrick's Hermanos!52